Toby Gad on Songs With Victoria Justice, Keke Palmer, Madonna & More

Toby Gad’s music career began in the late ‘80s – and like many long careers in music, it has hardly been a straight line rising to the top. If anything, the German songwriter-producer’s journey brings to mind a hiking trail that winds through a mountain range: There have been tough, uphill ascents, breathtaking overlooks, extended rest stops and the occasional detour.

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Over the last couple decades, Gad has written songs for and with stars including Beyoncé (“If I Were a Boy”), Demi Lovato (“Skyscraper”), Madonna (“Living for Love”), Fergie (“Big Girls Don’t Cry”) and John Legend (“All of Me”), with the latter two songs topping the Billboard Hot 100.

Following a whirlwind period of hitmaking, Gad looked at his jam-packed schedule and decided to take a bit of a breather in the mid ‘10s. After becoming what he calls a bit of a “surf bum” in Los Angeles, he found himself back in the industry when Deutschland sucht den Superstar – the German version of the Idol franchise – invited him on the show as a judge.

The stint reinvigorated Gad, who is currently back in L.A. and prepping for the release of Piano Diaries – Volume One. The album, slated for a mid 2024 release, finds him reimagining some of his signature songs, tapping previous collaborators (Keke Palmer, Victoria Justice) and fresh faces (Camylio) for new, stripped-down versions. Last month, he previewed the project on The Kelly Clarkson Show (a TV program hosted by yet another one of his star collaborators) with an intimate performance of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” featuring Justice on vocals.

Ahead of the release of Piano Diaries – Volume One, Gad spoke to Billboard via Zoom from his poolside L.A. studio, which boasts a grand piano (the one he and Legend wrote “All of Me” on) and a gorgeous view of the city – not bad for someone who spent several years living on instant soup in New York City waiting for that career-making song.

You were recently on The Kelly Clarkson Show, and you’ve known her for years. What’s it been like to watch her become this big daytime TV star in America?

I’m really happy for her. The first time we worked together on the Stronger album — before we even got into studio — she asked if we can go out for dinner. So we met in Silver Lake and had a dinner together. And we were just chatting away for two hours. And she’s such a wonderful, warm-hearted person and wants to know about your family and tells you all about her life and her family. And I think that’s why she has this show — because she loves talking to people. She has a very approachable way. If she talks to you, you instantly feel like, “We could be friends.”

On her show, you performed a reimagining of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” with Victoria Justice. What was it about Justice that made you reach out to her for this particular song?

She has actually not sang for a long time. She’s put a lot of energies into just acting and then recently she began releasing some music again. There’s one song, “Only A Stranger,” that she released which is very soft. And when I heard that I just was really curious to see what she would sound like on “Big Girls Don’t Cry” with a soft rendition, because the [original] song is Fergie’s belting voice. It worked out and she was totally happy that I called her. We were having so much fun. If you look into her TikTok, there’s dozens of little video clips of us climbing mountains or going through L.A., surfing together. Anything we can connect to the song, it’s so much fun. We actually were just in Baja for three days writing a few more songs.

So there’s more coming with her?

That won’t be Piano Diaries, but for her, we just wrote some stuff for her. And it was a lot of fun.

You mentioned TikTok — what do you think of it? It’s become such a big part of the music industry.

Short answer, I think it’s an amazing opportunity in general – TikTok, Instagram, being able for artists to have a direct conduit to their fans and directly let people hear what they’re doing. This is such a blessing. Most of my career was the old days where you would depend on record labels. Between you and the listener, there was always label. Now any artist anyone can just release something and publish it. And that’s incredible. I love that. And just recently, we restarted my Kite Records record label, and we’re releasing Piano Diaries on that via AWAL and Orchard. And it’s such an incredible opportunity. I love it.

You also have “Little Do You Know” with Keke Palmer and Aloe Blacc. You worked with Keke, what, 15 years ago?

When she came from Akeelah and the Bee and had Barbershop with Queen Latifah, then she got a record deal with Atlantic Records. We wrote a few songs – I think I had three songs on that Atlantic Records record — and she must have been 12 or 13 years old. I have some videos from back then — she always wanted to do the trust fall with me. She was such a powerful, driven kid back then already. I called her up and she was like, “Yes! Let’s do it.” Aloe is the sweetest, too, they have amazing chemistry.

So with Keke, have you kept in touch all these years?

I reached out to her last year — I was a judge on German Idol, and we filmed a documentary about my life for the German network. I asked her to be part of that and she was happy to come over and give some interviews. And that was nice. I actually reached out to a bunch of people: John Legend, Leona [Lewis], Natasha [Bedingfield], Colbie Caillat, everyone did little interviews about the relationships we’ve had work-wise and it made it onto this one-hour documentary that aired in Germany. “Bottoms Up” is one of the songs we had back then and also True Jackson, VP, her TV show, we did the title song. So every now and then our lives intersect.

You also have a new version of “Skyscraper” that you did with Camylio. He has such an amazing voice, how did he come across your radar?

I heard of Camylio a while ago and that was actually a little trickier because he’s signed to Universal/Republic so we had to convince his label. I’ve been a fan of his voice for a while, we’ve written together every now and then. I just wanted to hear it with a male voice — with a very strong male voice — and I think he did a beautiful job on it. We haven’t locked in the next single yet, but we have “All of Me,” which is going to be Colbie Caillat, and for “If I Were a Boy” or “Untouched,” but I’m not sure who it’s going to be. Who would you want to hear on these songs?

God, great question, putting me on the spot. Maybe SZA on “If I Were a Boy”? I don’t know. I did want to ask about that song. You co-wrote it with BC Jean, but how did you go about putting yourself in the mindset to write from a female perspective or to help enable that perspective?

With BC Jean, I had done 10 songs with her back then, we found each other on MySpace. This was one time where we just did a little pizza run from the studio in New York — I had a studio on 46th between 5th and 6th — and we were walking down the street and she was ranting about a boyfriend and said, “Well, if I were a boy, I would kick his ass.” Or something like that. And I was like, “Wait a minute, did you just say, ‘if I were a boy?’ That’s a great line. Let’s go back to the studio and write more of what you would do if you were a boy.” I got the guitar out and we were just line-by-line thinking all the all the things she would do different if she were a boy.

What made you want to do this album in the first place, to revisit these songs in a stripped-down context. What inspired that idea?

Well, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” I wrote 20 years ago with Fergie. “All of Me” now has its 10th anniversary. When I hear them on the radio I feel like I want to record them how I hear them today. And I also wanted to make a collection with the songs that have defined my career. Also, when I write songs, I usually write on the piano here. This is the piano I like to write on – we wrote “All of Me” on this piano. Quite often, the first version of a song is piano-vocal, and I wanted to let people hear that. It has an intimacy to it. I felt it would be great to have an album where those songs are stripped down and you dig in a little deeper into the lyric. But then also remixes where it can go crazy with different styles.

So “All of Me” was written on that piano. Was it in the exact room you’re in right now?

Yeah, right in here. John was so in love with Chrissy [Teigen] and said he wanted to write a song for her. And he already had the words, “all of me loves all of you,” and he had the first chord. And then from there we just built it together. I’m still very much in love with my wife, and I was thinking, “What I would want to sing to her?” And we were trading places at the piano and an hour and a half later, it was done.

Amazing. That’s just two people in a room. I’ve read an interview with you where you opine that having a big team of songwriters can spoil a song. Why is that, for you?

Personally, to me, I think authenticity is very important. If it comes straight from a journal, basically, the song feels like it’s out of the moment and an urgent, honest emotion put into music. Then it resonates the most with me. And I think if you have many people in the room, everyone contributes their idea from a different angle, and it has a danger of possibly becoming a more generic song versus something that just happens to be really weird and original. “All of Me” isn’t weird but it touches on something in a very authentic way. It’s a love song that feels like, “Wow, he’s really in love at that moment.” I love that about songs if they feel personal.

I also want to ask about Madonna, because you worked on Rebel Heart. I gather there were some sessions where you were waiting around but she didn’t show up?

Waiting around? That was Beyoncé. That was the days with Beyoncé and Jay-Z where I was on hold for a week, and she didn’t show up the first three days. With Madonna, we had a writing camp from Interscope and she didn’t come to the writing camp. But then Interscope convinced me to do another writing camp in New York that time it was in a studio next to Alicia Keys’ studio. And they actually did show up the first day. It was very intimidating at first, but then we kind of bonded and we ended up doing five weeks together.

How was it songwriting with her?

You know, at first it was Mozella and me and S1, he’s a beatmaker from Dallas. The three of us prepared ideas, we came in a little earlier in the studio, and then when she arrived, we showed her what we had just prepared. And fortunately, she liked the ideas, and then she sat down with us. And those were just rough ideas, like a beginning of a chorus or a little hook or something. Then we worked on it together and finished it together. I recorded her and we got a routine going. And later on, she was in the studio with Diplo, and his career was exploding so he had very little attention for Madonna and Madonna was pissed. She said, “Let’s get Toby back in because he’s the finisher.”

“Living for Love,” which you worked on, is like the best song on the album.

Thank you so much. I’m debating if I should put that on the Piano Diaries album. I saw the tour right after we wrote those songs it was absolutely amazing to see how quickly she transformed those songs into something that could be performed on stage with all her acrobatics. It was such a beautiful payoff to the writing sessions, to see those songs visualized. She’s such a star on stage. It’s unbelievable.

I also wanted to ask about the new Milli Vanilli documentary. At the start of your career, you had some writing credits on their debut album. When did you realize there was some fakery going on?

We’ve never met the guys. Frank Farian took us to the studio and we recorded the three songs. And then like a week or two after that album was finished and on the charts, it was such a quick turnaround. We were pretty much watching it from the outside. We heard the rumors that they didn’t sing, but it only became really clear after the tape started jamming, and then when they had to return the Grammy. The movie is well done. It’s super entertaining. And it’s so funny, because while these things unfolded, I was in the studio with Frank but working on our album, my brother and me we were doing an album called Q during that time. And I mean, Frank had a heart attack during that time — it really got to him and it was a sh-tstorm in the studio while they were touring in America doing all these big stadium tours. They came back and said, “We must sing on the [second album],” and Frank was like, “No, the album is finished. I’m not touching it anymore. It’s coming out.”

So he must have been panicking. Was he more anxious or angry?

All of that, all of the above. It was not easy for him. I mean, it was his biggest dream to make his mark in America. So in a way that was his, “Wow, finally.” He’s a massive producer in Germany with Boney M., but I don’t think America knows Boney M.

They had a couple hits in America, but never as big as the Milli Vanilli songs.

To have something resonate in America was for him a lifelong dream, and then it going so wrong was a disaster for Frank.

Were you ever worried about how it would affect your career?

No, because people loved the music. And it was just the fact that the performers didn’t really sing. They performed, they were dancing, and at the time, it was a bit more of a grey zone. A lot of singers would have backing tracks when they performed live and sing a few words, but the fact that they didn’t sing at all, that was hard.

You’re working on Piano Diaries now, and I gather it’s not finished. Is there anyone who you haven’t worked with who you would really like to, either on this project or in the future?

I would love to work with P!nk. I think it’s about time that we write a song. Somehow it’s never happened but I think it should.

Anything else you want to add about this project?

It’s a really exciting inflection point in my career. I came to America in 2000 with a lot of dreams and very little money. The first four or six years in New York were really, really hard. There were times when I was living on a bagel and an instant soup but I just couldn’t imagine going back to Germany — I had to write the song that would put me on the map. And okay, if we go from 2005-2006 – when “Big Girls Don’t Cry” was on the map – to 2015, which was kind of the culmination of all this amazing, incredible work with all these big stars. I was the No. 3 songwriter on Billboard [in 2014], which was incredible. And then I kind of dreamt of not working anymore. My calendar was two to three sessions every day for the next several months, and I thought, “When is this going to end?” [laughs] I pulled the plug and actually learned to surf, traveled, did some home renovations, started working on a movie I’m still working on, and then became a judge on German Idol. And that was such a great experience — being in front of the camera and being celebrated for being a songwriter — that I felt I needed to write songs again. From that, I was pushing hard again. The last two years, I was working really hard on getting good songs again, and with Piano Diaries I’m for the first time looking back on this incredible journey.

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